Facebook: Love It or Leave It

It’s come to this: God is being used as an excuse to take a break from Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal’s report that some social networking-weary folks are giving up Facebook for Lent marks the latest backlash against the site -- and exposes a digital divide along a generational fault line.

This publicity surrounding the fifth anniversary of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation seems to have provided a jumping off point for griping. The much-mocked “25 Random Things About Me” electronic chain-mail mini-craze spurred pieces in, among other places, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time magazine, which diagnosed the postings as a “bout of viral narcissism.”

There’s no doubt, at least, that Facebook has gone viral: Zuckerberg’s baby, birthed in his Harvard dorm, has grown from an online community for college types to a 175-million-member behemoth that some fear will zap whatever time and privacy we have left.

The surge in new members appears to come largely from those who are old enough to have kids who are old enough to figure out how to create a Facebook page for them.

Much hand wringing has accompanied this foray into the unfamiliar world of social networking: Whom do I friend? How do I unfriend somebody? Is unfriend even a word? I don’t like Facebook, I’m not comfortable on Facebook -- but if I’m not on it, am I really missing out on something?

Well, maybe. Facebook, like it or not, has become a powerful form of mass communication – the typical user reportedly spends 169 minutes a month on the site. The 175 million users, if lumped together in one location, would represent the world’s sixth most populous nation. Facebook has been used – and is being used – as a political organizing tool.

In short, Facebook has become a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend your life on it, watch every video of baby’s first steps posted by friends, click on every link to every save-the-fill-in-the-blank cause or come up with 25 inane things about yourself. At its best, Facebook is a handy tool to keep in touch with folks or reconnect, and get turned onto to news and views you otherwise might not see.

The 18-to-24-year-old crowd Facebook was originally aimed at doesn’t tend to whine about it the way older users do. They create new apps to improve the community. If they see something they don’t like – as with Facebook’s recent claim that it owns user-uploaded material – they’ll make a direct complaint (Facebook listened and did a relatively quick about face).

If Facebook stops working for them, the younger set simply will move on to the next new thing, when another college kid comes along with a communications-changing idea for the times.

One thing’s for sure: they’ll get there long before the old fogeys arrive and start complaining -- without taking a 40-day break for Lent.

Hester is one of the millions of old fogeys who joined Facebook in the last year. He is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He also is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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